Augusta Read Thomas’ “Auditions”

cover - NI6402

THOMAS: Avian Capriccio / Axiom Brass Quintet / Plea for Peace / Jessica Aszodi, sop; Yuan-Qing Yu, Ni Mei, vln; WeiJing Wang, vla; Ken Olsen, cel / Ripple Effects for Carillon 4 Hands / Joey Brink, Michael Solotke, carillon / The Auditions: Ballet for Chamber Orchestra / ICE Ensemble; Vimbayi Kaziboni, cond / Two Thoughts About the Piano / Daniel Oesca, pno / Selene / Third Coast Percussion; Cliff Colnot, cond / Your Kiss / Claire Booth, sop; Andrew Matthews-Owen, pno / Nimbus Alliance NI6402

This is another interesting collection of works, all in first recordings, by American composer Augusta Read Thomas. One of the interesting things about this collection, as you can see from the heard above, is that each work on it is written for an entirely different group of musicians, ranging from solo piano to full orchestra.

The opening piece, Avian Capriccio, may best be described as a modern fanfare for brass quintet, but it goes far beyond the scope of such pieces due to its sophisticated rhythmic divisions, with the quintet often playing in hocket style (one note per instrument, alternating to make up a complete bar or line of music). The language is atonal in the sense that no root chords are used and there is not specific tonic, but it is not serial music. One always feels that the tonic is just around the corner, except that it never arrives as the quintet plays in a whirlwind fashion throughout the entire first movement. In the second movement, a home key finally arrives (G major) and the music takes on what I would call an Aaron Copland-like feeling, using wide intervals, except that Thomas’ melodic line isn’t quite melodic enough for anyone to hum. The underlying harmony shifts, but in slow motion, as the movement progresses. Oddly, the third movement, “Canaries,” opens much as the second had finished, but then moves into its own oddly-rhythmed, hocket-style melodic line. These canaries have obviously been dipping in the Jack Daniels.

Plea for Peace, written for soprano and string quartet, is a wordless piece that slowly builds from near-immobility to a point where the voice and instruments constantly prodding one another as the piece builds in intensity. This, too, has a tonal bias but Thomas keeps it interesting by means of the shifts in the inner voices of the chords. Happily, soprano Jessica Aszodi has a lovely voice and outstanding musicianship. This is followed by Ripple Effects, written for carillon four hands, and here Thomas goes back to bitonality in a fascinating piece that uses the sustained sound of the carillon as part of the overall composition, with the lower-register notes acting as a binding ingredient on the upper-register playing. (It almost sounds like a couple of atonal, rival ice-cream trucks.)

The Auditions, a ballet score written for the Martha Graham Dance Company, alternates “landscape” pieces (the odd-numbered ones) with “action” sequences (the even-numbered ones). By and large, the action pieces are based upon rhythm moreso than harmony or melodic line and are often played in hocket style, whereas the landscape pieces are more melodic and focus on mood rather than activity. Judging from the description in the booklet, this seems to have been more of an abstract ballet without a specific story line. Oddly, some of the offbeat, odd-metered rhythms reminded me of Marius Constant’s Twilight Zone music. I also found it to be one of her most texturally interesting works, in which she weaves wind, string and particularly percussion instruments into an unusual sound fabric. And, as the score proceeds, the “action” sequences rather take over from the “landscape” ones, which helps the music to build in excitement to a rousing climax in the final denouement.

Two Thoughts About the Piano is a very abstract piece inspired by, but not based on, a work of the same name by Elliott Carter, progenitor of some of the ugliest music in the history of mankind. Again, Thomas works around the music rhythmically rather than melodically, but here introduces several pauses and stops in the discourse, partially as a means of catching the listener’s attention. Indeed, the music’s sprightliness and rhythmic bounce almost make one forgive her for spending so much time repeating certain notes over and over and over again.

Selene for winds and percussion quartet seems to inhabit a similar sound world to the piano piece, except that the widely-spaced melody notes seem to find their own tonality within a work that tries to avoid a home key. This is a rewritten version of the same piece, already recorded, which was scored for a string quartet and percussion quartet, but the expansion of the former into nine winds opens up the timbral and harmonic possibilities.

We end this particular survey of Thomas’ music with Your Kiss for soprano and piano, a setting of a poem by e.e. cummings. Annotator Paul Pellay describes it perfectly: “the perfumes conjured by cummings’ words slowly float, swirl and eddy in the air until they finally come to rest on the last two words, which furnish the work’s title. As with the words, so with the music, as the soprano similarly floats her rhapsodic melismas, and piano chords gently anchor her in Thomas’ harmonic fields.” An enjoyable end to a diverse and interesting collection of music by this gifted composer!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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